6125JavierRudolph.JPG

Williston-Elko's Javier Rudolph breaks free for a big gain against Estill during the Region 3-A jamboree.

Williston-Elko's football program experienced some unfamiliar outcomes last season.

The Blue Devils had talent, but many of those players hadn't yet gone through the grind that is a Williston-Elko schedule. They lost games to teams they simply don't lose to, and this is a rare season they're entering as something other than defending region champions.

Still, while unfamiliarity contributed largely to last year's 6-6 mark, it's the familiar faces they bring back that has head coach Derek Youngblood excited heading into the 2019 campaign.

"There was never a situation in any game last year where I thought our kids waved the white flag. I thought they fought through it," Youngblood said. "I think our biggest deal from last year to this year is just simply experience. We didn't feel like we weren't a talented football team last year. We lost a good group of guys two years ago. We felt like we had equal talent returning in those spots, but the experience factor was probably the thing that we lacked."

Youngblood expects the Blue Devils to open the season with a lot of guys on the field who saw a lot of playing time a year ago. So instead of breaking in new players and concepts, Williston-Elko is looking to polish all that's coming back.

The Blue Devils graduated a talented senior class, led by South Carolina signee KeShawn Toney, but still have established leaders who have been in the system for several years. Senior quarterback Tres Rimes is back, and junior wide receiver Adrian Chandler emerged last year as a go-to target lining up across from Toney. Junior Javier Rudolph is the team's leading returning rusher, and he can also play quarterback, defensive back and kick returner.

The schedule begins with a home game against county rival Barnwell, followed by two more non-region games against Class AA opponents Silver Bluff and Allendale-Fairfax. Then it's on to the Region 3-A grind and beyond, where Youngblood has seen those tough early games pay off in a big way in the past. This year, it won't be anything that's unfamiliar for these Blue Devils.

"I think you have to put yourself in position to play for November. I've always thought that way. I grew up in coaching that way," he said. "You have to prepare yourself. You really need to try to play over your head as much as you can. ... For us, it's just we want to be tested when we get out of there. We want to get our nose bloody. If we're fortunate enough to go out there and play well enough to win a game, we want to feel like we fought for it. That part of it's fun."

Kyle Dawson covers sports for the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter @ItsKyleDawson.